CONWAY — Floyd W. Corson, the organist at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in North Conway, is celebrating a significant milestone this month — his 90th birthday.
“Can you believe that? How is that possible?” the active and talented Conway resident exclaimed in a recent interview.
According to church moderator Carl Lindblade (who calls Corson "Maestro," as do many others), church leaders had planned a big shindig in Corson’s honor of Corson's big 9-0, but like so many things, COVID-19 changed that.
Instead, they plan to celebrate with a YouTube broadcast of a special Sunday service on the church’s YouTube channel (find First Church and subscribe to view their video).
That service, recorded Thursday, includes Lindblade reading a citation from Gov. Chris Sununu; a choral performance under the direction of Corson’s daughter, Anne Polak; and, of course, Corson at the 50-year-old, restored Moeller pipe organ, playing a prelude .The church’s new pastor, the Rev. John Richard Hogue, also speaks about Corson’s many gifts.
Corson has also been saluted in the church newsletter, Congregate Tidings, in which Lindblade writes, in part: "The strength and genius of Floyd is his modesty and, if you are serious about your music, no matter your age or level of expertise he treats you as an equal."
Named by the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce as a White Mountain Treasure in 2018 because of his extensive community outreach, the energetic Corson inspires all who know him.
“He doesn’t move from piano to organ in the sanctuary — he hops,” noted Lindblade.
“He’s the only person I know who can still wear clothes he had in high school. I swear he has not gained an ounce in over 70 years,” laughed Karen Umberger of Kearsarge, who has worked with Corson on the White Mountain Musical Arts board for more than 18 years. “Thanks to Floyd, I have learned to appreciate classical music.”
Added associate organist Muriel Magg, "For over 15 years, I have had the good fortune and privilege of knowing and working with Floyd Corson at First Church of Christ, Congregational. I have appreciated Floyd’s commitment, love and zeal for music, never seeking glory for himself, but dedicating his time and talents to give people a lifelong appreciation and enjoyment of music and the arts."
How he started playing the organ is an interesting tale.
Born in Haverhill, Mass., he grew up in Merrimac, a small town located between Haverhill and Newburyport.
Corson said he started studying piano in about the third grade. "My mother was a very fine pianist and I initially took lessons from her,” he said. “She went to Boston 40 miles each way from Haverhill by rail when she was a teenager to take lessons"."
Young Floyd then began studying with Charles Hilner, "the best-known musician in Haverhill (he played for silent movies and also had a little dance combo in addition to being the organist at the Universalist Church in Haverhill),” said Corson.
“We thought maybe I should study organ along with piano. I was probably 9,” he said.
Two years later, the young man was asked to take over as church organist at the Merrimacport Methodist Church for the summer. And when the elderly organist at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Merrimac — the one his family attended — retired in September 1942, young Floyd was asked to take over as organist and choir director at the tender age of … 12.
“I was paid $3 a service," he recalled. "The lady who was the head of the church’s prudential committee told my father once that it was the best investment they ever made!” laughed Corson, noting he stayed on for a dozen more years.
After graduating from Merrimac High School in 1948, he was thinking of majoring in mathematics at Bates College. But his minister, the Rev. Donald Selby, urged him to consider continuing his musical studies, suggesting a summer music course at Boston University. He could take the train in from Haverhill with the churchman, who was taking doctoral courses at BU.
“He asked me to give it a try to see if I'd like it. I loved it,” Corson said. “I said, ‘All right, I will apply to BU’ — and of course, my whole career path changed.”
He earned his bachelor's degree in music from Boston University in 1952; his master’s in music education from BU, with a church ministries minor, in 1954; and his doctorate in musical arts, studying at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford (Conn.) and BU in 1980.
Corson's teaching career includes serving as director of music for Tantasqua Regional Junior/Senior High School, in Sturbridge, Mass., from 1954-63; and as associate professor of music/director of music education at Westfield State University from 1963-88.
His church resume — spanning from the early '50s to the late 1980s — includes stints as organist/choir director at Second (Unitarian) Church in Boston, 1953-54; Elm Street Congregational Church, Southbridge, Mass., 1954-63; Foster Memorial Church, Springfield, Mass., 1963-64; Second Congregational Church, Westfield, Mass,. 1964-70; and First United Methodist Church, Westfield, Mass., 1970-88.
He also served as singing master in Old Sturbridge Village from 1960-76; helped conduct a bicentennial celebration in the Boston Public Gardens and Old South Meeting House in 1975 and '76; and was founder and conductor of the Greater Westfield Choral Association from 1974-1988.
He believes he inherited his musical gene from his mother, "and that has been passed on to my daughter, Anne, and two granddaughters, Julia Edwards and Sara Handspecker," Corson said.
"Julia is the high school music director in Poland, Maine, and has a band, Bold Riley, which has played at our church. And Sara, who teaches dance and was a music and dance major in college, went on to play Snow White at Disney World."
Even his 3-year-old great-grandson, Atticus, is getting into the act. "He is able to get sounds out of a trombone when he toots it, which is unbelievable to me,” Corson beams.
His granddaughters often join in on special Sundays at the North Conway church, with their choir director mother, who plays flute and guitar.
Corson first came to the White Mountains with his grandparents as a young boy, staying at Moody's Farm in Jackson.
He loved hiking and skiing, and he and his late wife Sara Jane (Cummings) (whom he married in 1961 and sadly lost to illness three years ago) had began building a vacation home in Jackson in 1973.
So when the early retirement beckoned (at the young age of 58), they were able to move into what was by then a pretty much finished second home.
However, when Sara Jane’s health and mobility declined, they moved in 2005 to a more accessible home in Cedar Creek where Corson still lives. (It also serves as home to two grand pianos — a 1930 Steinert (as old as he is, he laughs) and a 1909 Steinway that was totally rebuilt by the late Lee Morton of Sandwich in the early 1990s.
He performs and practices on those when he’s not enthralling his audiences as first organist at First Church of Christ, Congregational, where he's been church organist for 22 years.
So much for retirement, right?
When he and Sara Jane retired to the wilds of Jackson in 1988, Corson ended up volunteering for a few substitute local church organist posts for a decade before coming to the First Church of Christ Congregational that year.
But his post-retirement activities haven't been confined to the church organ loft. His time in the valley has included accompanying many vocal and instrumental recitals and founding White Mountain Musical Arts, which took over the established Bach Festival in 2002.
He has also accompanied recitals at the University of Southern Maine, including with well-known local vocalist Mary Bastoni Rebmann at the University of Southern Maine; pianist with the Lakes Region Wind Quintet; and performing “Two Men, Four Hands, One Piano” and “Two Men, Four Hands, Two Pianos” recitals with the late North Conway pianist Frank Glazer and Duncan Cummings, a professor of music at Albany State.
Corson also stayed active (literally) in the hiking world, becoming a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s 48 4,000-Footer Club in 1985. He served as coordinator of volunteers for the Mt, Washington Observatory from 1988-2010; as a host for the state of New Hampshire Mount Washington State Park’s Tip-Top House summers in the 1990s; and volunteering for Obs staff on Mount Washington in February 1995.
Although he doesn't ski anymore, he's continued with fitness goals, including plans to hike Imp Face off Route 16 in Gorham.
“It’s a hike I’ve always wanted to do but never have, so my family is coming up, including one of my granddaughters who is an Iron Man competitor," said Corson, who believes, “You can’t become a couch potato — you’ve got to stay active.
Now, with the social distancing guidelines of the pandemic, Corson has adapted to the new normal.
“What amazes me is that after 78 years of being every Sunday at the music bench of a church, now I get to sit in front of my computer and watch it on YouTube," he said.
"This spring, our interim pastor, Dr. Ruth Shaver, would record the choir with my daughter Anne and others, and of me on Thursdays, and then she would put all the pieces together to air on Sunday on our church channel on YouTube at 10 a.m. That has continued with our new pastor, Rev. Hogue. So I get to watch it on Sunday,” he beamed.
“But it is nothing like playing live before a full congregation,” he added when asked how he has been able to adjust to playing to an empty church. “I so enjoy performing to an audience!”
Asked if he feels closer to God when he performs in church, he replied, “Music speaks to my soul absolutely. It transports me when I sit at that organ for sure."
According to Lindblade, Corson stands out for his “mastery of the classical organ and his performing works by such composers as Bach, Mozart, Handel and Schubert, with renditions that seldom repeat as he introduces new work all the time.”
He adds that Corson also is gifted in his “treatment of our Protestant hymn tradition, taking basic hymns that he embellishes in a way that renders them extraordinarily moving.”
Weddings, funerals, memorial services, regular Sunday services — Corson does it all, assisted by Magg, an accomplished performer in her own right.
He performs on a church pipe organ that was in terrible shape when he first arrived, though church leaders were trying to raise money to have it replaced.
Corson, according to Lindblade, urged them instead to have it restored. That they did, for $75,000, and to hear him play on it is a treat.
“He is professionally trained, but as a consummate church organist, he knows how to drive a service, how to move it along,” noted Lindblade, recalling one Easter Sunday service when Corson had the church rocking with his rendition of “Christ The Lord Has Risen Today.”
“He then toned it down to a hush so the minister could deliver his prayer. That is genius!” enthused Lindblade, who also particularly recalled Corson performing a magnificent rendition of “America the Beautiful” for the first service after the terror attacks of 2001.
Now, with the world facing fresh uncertainties, Lindblade said faith and Corson’s music are much-needed complements to life in a challenging world.
To which, Corson adds a hearty amen.
Asked to name his favorite — playing the organ or the piano — he says he loves them both.
“It depends which instrument I am playing at the moment,” he laughed.
And as far as continuing to perform as a nonagenarian, Corson notes that he is playing better than ever.
Echoing a comment made by Spanish cellist aPablo Casals — who said when asked why he kept practicing at 90, replied, "Because I'm getting better" — Corson said, “I am playing as well as I ever had. The fact that I have continued to play — I continue to practice — has kept my fingers limber. I just don’t give up,” he said.
Which has been true all his life, whether getting caught in an avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine with two friends while in college (another story for another time); competing in rollerskating duo competitions; hiking and walking; or performing classical music, he stays the course.
May his encores continue for years to come.